Will it be the end of Hun Sen era

Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Cambodia’s 2018 election is due to take place in July 2018. There have been media clampdowns and the suppression of dissent.


Hun Sen of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has led the country since 1998. This gives him the title of one of the world’s longest-serving politicians. Once a commander in the Khmer Rouge army, Hun Sen’s political reign is rooted in the country’s bloody past. Under Khmer Rouge regime, over 1.7 million people died. Today, Hun Sen continues to make moves to ensure his success in the 29 July 2018 election. In a speech given on December 2017, Hun Sen has vowed to stay in power for another ten years. Analysts have also highlighted Hun Sen’s desire to turn Cambodia into a one-party state. They cite the support from China and the hands-off approach by US President Donald Trump.

CPP’s clampdown on media within the country

In recent months, there is a rapid decline in political and media freedom within the country. This decline has made it hard for politicians and civil society to oppose and critique Hun Sen’s rule. Since August, the government has closed 19 radio stations. These included Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The stations are popular amongst the rural population, who make up 78% of the total population. The low-cost nature of radio makes it affordable for all.

Despite the rich media landscape of the country, there is little freedom. CPP has political affiliations with 43% of print media, 63% of television media, and 8% of radio media. Given such control, the information disseminated via those mediums may be questionable.

Source: Media Ownership Monitor (MoM) KH

In the past years, there have been increases in Internet and social media usage. The number of social media users within the country has expanded to over seven million in 2017. The impact of such social connectivity has not escaped the government’s purview. There has been crackdown and harassment of media outlets. An example is the arrest of Sam Sokha, who faced punishment for throwing a shoe at a photo of Hun Sen in October 2017.

Cambodia’s economic success under Hun Sen and the CPP

The leader’s 32-year reign is not all bad. Cambodia has also seen three-decades of strong economic growth at 6.9%. Under the CPP, poverty levels have continued to fall. Improvements in the standard of living help legitimise Hun Sen’s position. As of 2015, the country has gained its middle-income status. The growth comes from construction, garment exports, tourism, and agriculture.

Economic prosperity has come alongside increased inflation and rising food prices. A rise in wages has the potential to galvanise the average Cambodian’s optimism. The country has decreased its multidimensional poverty. Multidimensional poverty takes into account, health, education and living standards in households. Cambodia’s life expectancy has increased by 15.2 years between 1995-2015. With better livelihood, public dissent s eems unlikely.

The dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and political opposition

Internationally, the economy is not Cambodia’s greatest concern. The oppositional CNRP and 118 of its members face a five-year ban from politics. This move has made international players such as the US “greatly concerned”. The CPP has curtailed political street rallies, and CNRP politicians have fled abroad. For many, the move to dissolve the CNRP marks “the end of true democracy in Cambodia”. The crackdown comes in the wake of growing dissatisfaction with the CPP ruling party.

In 2013, dissatisfaction with the government saw people take to the streets. It resulted in a violent government crackdown in January 2014. In the 2017 local elections, CNRP won 46% of the votes. The CPP has reacted to this and the protests by removing the opposition and clamping down media. This has also meant opposition to the party is no longer possible without the threat of violence. Hun Sen’s ability to influence the judiciary has come under criticism. The judiciary is evolving into a political tool to silence dissent. With the removal of election contestants, Hun Sen and the CPP have lesser obstacles ahead.

Sources: The Guardian, Phnom Penh Post, Bangkok Post

Hun Sen may win the election this year. But, he may not win the hearts of his people. Despite the threat of arrest and violence, people have resorted to protests. The CPP government has arrested four people. They had linked the murder of anti-CPP activist Kem Ley to the state. The arrests highlight the people’s strong opposition to the ruling party. Media clampdown and a political vacuum will not stop them from voicing their views.

In Hun Sen’s eyes, setbacks are probably all temporary. There remains a strong connection between the CPP, the police, and the judiciary. The nexus of politics, media, military and police will reinforce his and CPP’s position. Hun Sen is all set to benefit from the arrangement. It is unlikely that the 2018 election will mark the end of Hun Sen.